Autophagy is a catabolic process for bulk degradation of cytosolic materials mediated by double-membraned autophagosomes. The membrane determinant to initiate the formation of autophagosomes remains elusive. Here, we establish a cell-free assay based on LC3 lipidation to define the organelle membrane supporting early autophagosome formation. In vitro LC3 lipidation requires energy and is subject to regulation by the pathways modulating autophagy in vivo. We developed a systematic membrane isolation scheme to identify the endoplasmic reticulum–Golgi intermediate compartment (ERGIC) as a primary membrane source both necessary and sufficient to trigger LC3 lipidation in vitro. Functional studies demonstrate that the ERGIC is required for autophagosome biogenesis in vivo. Moreover, we find that the ERGIC acts by recruiting the early autophagosome marker ATG14, a critical step for the generation of preautophagosomal membranes.
Cells continually adapt their behavior to accommodate changes in their environment. For example, when nutrients are abundant, cells can grow or proliferate; in times of scarcity, however, they must conserve resources for essential tasks. In particular, during periods of starvation, cells can cannibalize themselves in a process called autophagy, which literally means ‘self-eating’. Structures called autophagosomes engulf bits of cytoplasm and carry the contents to the digestive compartment of the cell, the lysosome, to be broken down into their constituent parts. This can include the degradation of proteins into amino acids, which can then be recycled into other proteins needed by the cell.
In cells, proteins are shipped to their destinations—which can be the plasma membrane or a specific organelle within the cell—via a delivery system known as the secretory pathway. This pathway begins in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), where many of these proteins are made. From the ER, the proteins move to a compartment called the Golgi apparatus, which then sends them to their destinations, or to the lysosome to be broken down. Between the ER and Golgi they pass through a structure called the ER–Golgi intermediate compartment (ERGIC).
Although the signaling pathways that initiate autophagy are known, less is understood about the actual formation of the autophagosomes. Now, Ge et al. have developed an in vitro system to study their formation, and gone on to identify a membrane that is both necessary and sufficient to create these structures.
Previous studies have implicated a variety of membranes—including the plasma membrane and the membranes belonging to the ER, the Golgi apparatus, the lysosome and various other organelles—in the formation of autophagosomes. To identify which of these membranes might be involved, Ge et al. focused on a protein called LC3 that is a key marker for the formation of the autophagosome. This protein is recruited to the growing autophagosome by a lipid, so discovering which membranes can add a lipid to LC3 should shed light on the assembly process.
By separating the full range of organelles in a cell lysate into fractions (a process called fractionation), Ge et al. found that the ERGIC was the most active membrane to attach lipid to LC3. Additionally, the lipid was only added when signaling pathways that stimulate autophagy—such as the PI3K pathway—were activated. Together, these results provide insight into the mechanism of autophagosome formation, and the structures in the cell that participate in this process.